After 18 boxes of evidence supporting the Starr report were delivered to Congress in early September 1998, both Republican and Democratic lawyers began poring over the documents. The congressional staff attorneys started redacting social security numbers, embarrassing sexual details, and information about White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s weight problems.
But as New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker described in his again-timely book, The Breach, Democratic lawyer Julian Epstein was just starting to worry. Because in the process of suggesting redactions, Democrats and Republicans were agreeing on too much.
“The whole premise governing the Democratic strategy was to paint the Republicans as unfair, to make a case that they were being partisan,” reported Baker:
After the public backlash against the salacious material in the Starr report, Epstein particularly wanted to have some disagreements so that the Democrats could say the Republicans were only interested in putting out smut—never mind that most Democrats voted along with the GOP majority to release the original Starr report, all equally ignorant of what it might contain.
So the Democrats went through the documents again, looking for lurid details to redact that they thought Republicans would reject, in an effort to create the appearance of partisan fighting. And sure enough, Democrats moved to redact the detail about Bill Clinton’s famous use of a cigar. Republicans argued that this incident was proof that Clinton had lied about never having touched Lewinsky in an erotic way. They opposed the redaction.
And thus the GOP fell right into the Democrats’ trap. They voted to keep lurid sexual details in the materials to be released and the Democrats had their hook for the 1998 midterm elections, in which they argued that Republicans were deranged, power-hungry perverts. And it worked.
Twenty-one years later, party-line partisanship surrounding an impeachment is again an electoral strategy. When the House of Representatives voted last week to begin a formal impeachment inquiry, not a single Republican voted with the Democratic majority.
In any normal judicial proceeding, the facts of the case would drive the process. But just as Democrats did in 1998, Republicans are now trying to use the process to create a narrative: that Democrats are running a partisan “witch hunt” to burn their cherubic and innocent president at the stake.
Given the overwhelming evidence that Trump withheld aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extort political dirt on Joe Biden, it is unbelievable that even a few conscientious Republicans wouldn’t wander off the reservation to back a formal inquiry, at least, even if they couldn’t go the full-hog on voting for articles of impeachment. But without the facts on its side, the GOP seems to have realized that its only play is to scramble the process in an attempt to create a fact they can lean on.
And pitching the impeachment inquiry as a strictly partisan endeavor is a manufactured fact Republicans think might work.
Which explains why conservative dissenters are treated as heretics: if even one or two Republicans were to stray and criticize the president, the façade would crack and the witch hunt narrative would begin to melt. Any Republican who dares question the legality of a president withholding aid to a foreign government in exchange for domestic campaign help will find themselves standing in front of Trump’s Twitter flamethrower. It’s the Republicans’ best argument and they can’t let independent thinkers like Pierre Delecto derail it.
The downside to this strategy—aside from the fact that it’s dishonorable and corrodes public trust in political life—is that it’s not clear it can work when the public is actually in favor of impeachment. “Impeach and remove” is already over 50 percent in virtually every poll, and that number is still heading north.
If the public wants Trump removed and the only thing holding the caucus together is the idea of total solidarity, then it may take only a few Senators to turn on Trump for the dynamic to change, quickly. Once the “partisan process” foundation is gone, the entire building falls.
This is a dynamic that sometimes happens in politics. For instance, take Nikki Haley’s position on removing the Confederate Flag from South Carolina government buildings. Republicans were four-square against it—until she took the position in 2015 and gave other Republicans permission to do so. Then suddenly conservatives began nodding and saying “yeah, that sounds right.”
Naturally, Democrats are on the hypocrisy hook here—they’re currently running closed, leaky committee hearings in a manner they have criticized when Republicans ran the show.
And if Republicans were truly concerned about the impeachment process being too partisan, they could fix it tomorrow: Participate in the closed committee hearings in good faith and then be prepared to try to help all of the facts come out once the process moves into the open.
But, of course, an unfair partisan process helps Republicans. Like the Democrats in 1998, the rallying cry of a “partisan witch hunt” is the only thing GOP has going for them.